Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Bin Perfectionism

Some people think perfectionism is a virtue…

Oh…don’t you know, I just can’t get started until my pencils are aligned to the nearest micron, every to-do note in my inbox has been trouser pressed, and I’m as calm as a Buddhist Monk going ‘Ommmmmm‘ by the shore of placid lake. Then…everything has to be meticulously executed as if I’m a robot on a Mitsubishi assembly line. I can’t rest until I’ve dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’. Mistakes, failure… they’re not an option. I don’t stop until I’ve achieved perfection.

Or a mental breakdown… because in reality, perfectionists are either 1. associating themselves with a perceived ideal in an attempt to impress, or 2. mentally ill.

I’m not joking. I suffered from extreme perfectionism for years – the cause of which was firmly rooted in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

When perfectionism gets so bad that you don’t feel like you’ve cleaned your teeth unless you’ve eroded the enamel away like a rock under a glacial sheet, when ‘clean’ isn’t achieved until you’ve achieved ‘surgically sterile’, when every word you write has to have the rhythm and flow of Iambic pentameter, when failure is anything less than a grade A or gushing praise, when everything you do and say has to be executed with the precision of a scientist splitting atoms in a lab… then you know you’ve got problems.

That’s not a virtue…that’s a one way ticket to a life of underachievement, chronic stress, anxiety and a crippling fear of failure.

Think 80 / 20

One of the best practical strategies I’ve employed in dealing with my OCD induced extreme perfectionism over the years is the 80/20 principle…the rule that 80 percent of results are spawned by 20 percent of the effort put in.

The 80/20 principle isn’t a precise formula of course, so there’s no need to get too hung up on the percentages. But the basic gist of the idea is that you get the biggest bang for your buck when focusing on the most important stuff – the essentials – and get increasingly diminishing returns the more you attempt to elaborate or refine your efforts.

For example, if you write an essay you can get the majority of the message across in 20 percent of the time, with 20 percent of the mental effort, in 20 percent of the words.

After addressing those fundamentals, the rest is just increasingly superfluous embellishment… a progressively unbalanced ratio between effort and results; one that just wastes a disproportionate amount of time and effort for little extra tangible gain.

In other words, you could spend 10 hours – a full working day – getting an essay ‘just right’. Or alternatively, you could – and probably should – spend two hours focusing your attention on the most important points… and then spend the other 8 hours in the sun.

By doing so you’d have gained 80 percent of the results for 20 percent of the effort and time… and saved yourself a great deal of stress and strain in the process.

In fact, the peace of mind arising from doing more of the things you enjoy, can’t help but translate into higher productivity. You’ll be happier, more relaxed, more playful, light-hearted and more creative. You’ll function on a higher level. You’ll be able to apply yourself and focus more efficiently when you do work; and your work will seem less of a burden, less of a chore.

Recognising That Less is More

The 80 / 20 principle is such a great antidote to perfectionism – and as a by-product, to stress – because it forces you to acknowledge how utterly futile it is to over invest your time, energy and resources in any one thing.

You come to appreciate that it really is the big picture that counts; that things can be rough around the edges or incomplete, and yet still be good.

However, it’s important to appreciate that following the 80 / 20 principle isn’t about rushing through your tasks quicker than a Godolphin doped thoroughbred around a race track, or cutting more corners than quality control on a Taiwanese production line.

It’s about distilling the essence of a task – the fundamental bits – and then having the disipline to exclusively focus on those. No rushing – you do those essentials calmly, methodically and at a relaxed, but purposeful pace. No vital omissions – the essentials still get done, and get done well.

Take the example of tidying the house. You could go through every draw, every cupboard, dust every door lintel and skirting board, scrub the bath, wash and vacuum every nook and cranny. Or you could simply pick the rubbish up off the floor, wash the dishes, vacuum the main living areas, give a few key areas a quick once over and put your feet up.

The first option will leave you exhausted, the second will give you much the same results whilst leaving you with plenty of reserves.

Remember…

To this day, if I find myself putting in a disproportionate amount of effort into a task – big or small – because of my innate inclination to always need everything to be perfect, I pause… and say to myself, ‘Think 80 / 20′.

That simple phrase jolts me out of an stress burdened, self-destructive, overwhelmed sense of helplessness and into a more balanced, logical perspective.

I take the time to identify, and then focus exclusively on the fundamentals.

I ask myself:

  • What core result do I want to achieve?
  • What fundamental components make up that core result?
  • What are the big bits of the task that will make all the difference?

By doing so, I’m able to achieve exponentially more, without the self-destructive burden of perfectionism weighing heavy on my shoulders.

I don’t apply the principle to some of my articles of course…but hey, maybe one day!

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth